Monday, February 01, 2010

Danish Oscar Candidate: Terribly Happy

In the southern Jutland region of Denmark the word “mojn” is used much like “aloha.” It is usually said in a way that gets under the skin of an urban northerner, like Robert Hanson, the sleepy hamlet’s new police marshal. Recovering from a nervous breakdown, the law man must prove his stability if he ever wants to see his family again. Unfortunately, rather than redemption, Hanson finds nothing but trouble in Henrik Ruben Genz’s Terribly Happy (trailer here), Denmark’s (unsuccessful) submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, which opens in New York this Friday.

Folks have their own way of doing things in this provincial town, including a very precise method for hanging clothes out to dry. One of the few people willing to explain such customs to the marshal is the battered wife of the wealthy town bully. Truly, the Buhls were an evil match. Ingelise is flirtatious and reckless. Jørgen has a suspicious nature matched by a violent temper. When their daughter Dorthe is heard pushing her doll’s carriage around town, everyone knows Buhl is beating his wife.

Hanson would like to book Jørgen Buhl on a domestic violence charge, but his wife is reluctant to press charges. Further complicating matters, the marshal finds himself increasingly attracted to Mrs. Buhl. It all comes to a head one night when Hanson finds his fate intertwined with the Buhls in an unexpected way. So much for staying out of trouble.

Happy is a rather nifty little thriller well served by its Nordic reserve. Rather than desperately trying to dazzle the audience with one De Palma-like Hitchcockian homage after another, Genz’s approach is more restrained. Almost off-handedly he reveals twists, like a boot inopportunely left behind in the bog. While his directorial touch is relatively light, there is still a heavy atmosphere hanging over the proceedings that suggests films like the Coen Brother’s Blood Simple and John Dahl’s Red Rock West. Indeed, cinematographer Jørgen Johansson gives the film a cool, glossy look that aptly reflects Hanson geographic and emotional isolation.

As Hanson, Jakob Cedergren (seen by many online in Sally Potter’s Rage) makes an appealing anti-hero, more-or-less holding our sympathies despite his terrible mistakes. Likewise, Kim Bodia nicely projects the barely contained rage as his antagonist. When they square off in a mano-a-mano drinking contest, it is pure movie-making magic. Yet it is the distinctive supporting characters, like the squirrelly and sinister Lars Brygmann as the town’s dubious doctor, that really flesh out the picture.

Boasting a few scenes that approach classic status, Happy is quite a distinctive crime drama. Handling the one-darned-thing-after-another thriller elements with a sardonic flair, Genz demonstrates real talent. Dark, unsentimental, and completely lacking a trite political message, Happy was totally out-of-step with Academy preferences, but it is a thoroughly satisfying small town noir. It opens Friday (2/5) in New York at the Angelika Film Center.